An Albemarle High School student sculpts a hand during her ceramics class

Albemarle High School will soon offer its students a new way to organize some of their courses.

Beginning this fall, what school officials are calling a Fine Arts Pathway will allow incoming freshman and rising sophomores the opportunity to focus their high school electives in the fine and performing arts.

“When I think about the kid who plans to be a music major and spend their entire life in music, this is just a really good start to kick their college career into high gear,” Jennifer Morris, Albemarle’s Chair of the Fine Arts Department, said. “They will just be leaps and bounds ahead of the game when they start those courses in college.”

Within the Pathway, students can choose from eight strands, or areas of focus: art, ceramics, photography, band, orchestra, chorus, creative writing and theatre.

Each strand is composed of five traditional classroom courses, but the program will also require students to take their passions outside of the school building.

In 10th grade, students will complete 10 hours of a community learning experience, where students shadow someone in a career that relates to his or her focus.

“This is something that the students would work with their strand teacher to go out and find connections,” Morris said.

Albemarle is hoping these community learning projects lead to the internships students will have to complete in 11th grade.

Additionally, each student will have to present a 12th grade Capstone Project that wraps up their four years in the program.

The courses won’t be weighted like an Advanced Placement course, but Morris said that won’t deter these students.

“These kids do this because they want to, not because a course has AP listed on it,” Morris said.

Currently, Albemarle is estimating that about 75 students will participate in the program next year, and while they are excited about the numbers, Morris recognizes the challenge of locating that many internships.

“We have places that we’re definitely going to start, but there’s probably going to be a whole lot more, and that’ll be good for us too,” Morris said.

The Pathway will only be available to Albemarle High School students.

Principal Jay Thomas said he’s shared the model with the other high schools, who are welcome to implement it.

“I’m trying to get away from the ‘One school has this, and one has that’ idea,” Thomas said.

Morris said she didn’t want to develop a program that pulled fine arts students out of the other high schools.

Albemarle already offers many of the classes included in the Pathway.

Despite that, ceramics teacher Angela Gleeson said the move will highlight the students’ already strong efforts.

“We’re cleaning up the edges so they realize how much work they’re already doing, and then getting them out in the community to see what they already love, to see what they’ve put their time and energy into and how it’s being used outside of this building,” Gleeson said.

“Even if they don’t plan to be a [college] major in any of these things, these are life skills,” Morris said. “They are able to take these concepts and transfer them to something that doesn’t have to do with the arts.”

And the Pathway is not just for college-bound students.

“It doesn’t have to be just the star of the show or the guy who always gets the solos,” Morris said.

“Then we’re talking to them about programs that are out there that aren’t college-based programs,” Gleeson added.

Olivia Stow, a 9th grade cellist, has registered for the orchestra pathway.

“I really love the class…and learning new music throughout the year,” Stow said. “You see improvement in yourself and other people as the year goes by.”

Thomas said the variety of academies now being offered, and the quality of the fine and performing arts program at AHS sparked the idea.

To begin the planning process, Thomas and other staff visited fine arts academies around the Commonwealth.

During some of those visits, Thomas said, he realized how advanced Albemarle’s students already were.

“What some of those academies are requiring of their kids, we’re already doing on a day-in day-out basis,” Thomas said. “What we were missing was an experience outside the classroom that a lot of schools already had.”

One quality they all shared that Thomas wanted to stay away from was an application. 

“I met with staff here and it was unanimous that no one wanted to make this an application process,” Thomas said. “By no means do we want to limit any student who may be interested in doing this.”

In fact, students who simply want to take one of the courses, but not pursue the entire pathway are welcome.

At the end of the day, Morris and Gleeson are happy that Albemarle High School values the arts as much as the teachers love teaching them.

In addition to a teacher’s core knowledge, Gleeson said, she approaches instruction by trying to find out what the student is capable of, and then pushing him or her just a bit further.

Morris said teaching her students to perform in an ensemble shows them how important the details are.

“You can all sing, or you can all play and instrument,” Morris said, “but what are the details in between the lines of the music that make the best performance?”

Stow said her fine arts courses stand out from her academic work.

“I feel like they’re teaching you to do things,” Stow said. “In other artistic classes you do more, whereas in some science and math classes you just sit and try to learn.”

Morris agreed.

“Many of the core class are you having all of this information and you have to come up with one answer,” Morris said. “The arts are about divergent thinking, where you have a situation that has a million different possibilities about how it could end up.”

“So the ability to take one little thing and put your personal piece into it,” Morris added. “I think that is key.”